African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

National Museum of African Art, Washington DC. Until 9 December 2012

Gazing up at a sky full of stars is one of the most universal of human experiences, cutting across cultures and, one imagines, stretching back to the dawn of humanity. Yet artistic depictions of the heavens in popular culture are predominantly European — from Johann Bayer's engravings of the constellations in his 1603 star atlas Uranometria to the swirling brilliance of Van Gogh's 1889 painting The Starry Night.

An exhibition at the US National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, may help to change that. It showcases a range of contemporary and historical pieces by African artists. All are connected in one way or another to the Sun, Moon or stars.

Gavin Jantjes' untitled painting depicts a Khoisan girl creating the Milky Way. Credit: PHOTOGRAPH: F. KHOURY

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts was sponsored in large part by the government of South Africa. The country was selected this year, along with Australia, to host the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the world's largest radio telescope; that association adds to the sense of interplay between the scientific and the spiritual that weaves its way through the exhibition. The show seamlessly bridges the centuries, uniting pieces as diverse as traditional moon masks from Côte d'Ivoire and Trembling Field, an interactive sculpture by South African Karel Nel. Nel is resident artist with the Cosmic Evolution Survey, a project that focuses on a two-square-degree field of the sky to see how the Universe has changed over time.

“Africa has a long and rich history of keen observation of the heavens,” says the exhibition's curator, Christine Mullen Kreamer. “Works of art can allows us access to that history, and that knowledge.”


The journey begins on territory that is both ancient and familiar, with a series of pieces from pharaonic Egypt. Representations of cosmic deities and celestial objects such as the bright star Sirius are reminders of the night sky's prominent role in the rituals and beliefs of civilizations along the Nile. The exhibition goes on to leap across the Sahara and forward in time. Far more exotic to non-African eyes are items that date back only a century or so: a bowl and lid from Nigeria representing the domains of Earth and sky, or a Dogon stool from Mali, which depicts human ancestral figures descending from the heavens to populate the land below.

One of the more striking of the contemporary works, an untitled painting by South African artist Gavin Jantjes, playfully reverses the theme of genesis from above. Based on a Khoisan myth from southern Africa, it depicts the story of a girl dancing around a fire. She throws glowing embers high into the night, thereby creating the Milky Way, the dominant feature of the southern sky.

So might the creative sparks tossed skywards from such an exhibition serve to illuminate a continent's worth of artistic achievement and potential.